Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI)

Teaching your subject the correct behavior, because it’s the only behavior they can do

Damn, that title is a mouthful. 

Today we’re talking about Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors! Or DRI for short. This is going to be the first article in a series about the 4 different kinds of differential reinforcement (DRI, DRO, DRL, DRA). In each of these articles, we’re going to discuss the methods used to reduce unwanted behavior through reinforcement. Crazy I know, especially since reinforcement is generally used to help behaviors occur more frequently. But through the powers of Differential Reinforcement, you can also reduce problem behaviors too. 

With that in mind, let’s head back to this week’s topic, Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI). While its name sounds complicated, DRI just means that you’re going to be reinforcing the behaviors that make the problem behaviors impossible to do. What makes DRI special is that the behavior we’re reinforcing is going to be what we call an “incompatible behavior” – meaning it and the problem behavior can’t be done at the same time.

For example, if you wanted to talk to someone but you also want to take a large sip of water too. You can’t talk and drink water at the same time.  You have to stop talking to drink, and you have to stop drinking to talk. These two behaviors are incompatible with one another.

Remember kids, don’t drink and talk at the same time or you’re going to have a bad time.

With that in mind, the core to DRI is reinforcing the incompatible behavior so your subject will do that instead of whatever problem behavior they were having. Going back to that earlier example, if your subject was talking too much (problem behavior) then you could just reinforce them every time they too a sip from their water (reinforcement of incompatible behavior). 

Let’s dive into some other examples to show how this all works in other places.

Lab Example

When I was in college, one of my behavior Professors would show us slides and stories about the autistic children she worked with. Many of them were the sweetest kids in the world, and more importantly, each one presented a different behavioral challenge for my professor. She taught us the different approaches and different ways she worked to help these kids manage their symptoms and live a more fulfilling life. 

One of these kids was a red-head named Tom. Tom looked like a sweet boy, but when he first arrived at the behavior center, he had the bad habit of self-harming when he wanted attention. Sometimes he would do this by beating his head, other times he would try and bite his own finger. Just before being admitted, Tom almost lost an eye from hitting himself in the head so hard, and the tips of his fingers were a crosspatch of white scars.

Not Tom, but Tom was just as cute as this kid.

My professor asked us what we would do in this scenario. What incompatible behaviors would we train into Tom? 

Some of us responded that we could teach him to hold his hands behind his back. Other students said we could train him to keep his arms at his side. 

Both of these answers are using incompatible behaviors correctly (you can’t hit yourself if you keep your arms to your side or if your arms are behind your back), but the students were missing one of the most important points to DRI: why was the subject doing this? 

To use DRI, we have to first understand why the problem behavior is happening and how you can reinforce the incompatible behavior.

For Tom, we discovered that he would self-harm whenever any of his caretakers asked him to do anything. It could be working on his homework, learning how to write, or learning how to brush his teeth by himself. Tom would self-harm in order to try and escape these demands. His caretakers at the time knew they had to stop him, but were unsure how to make him complete the task they needed him to. 

While the students all offered great suggestions, I personally enjoyed the route my professor took. 

My Professor gave Tom two large plastic cups to hold when it was time for him to either study, or if demands were being made for him (usually to read, or do homework, or attend therapy sessions). If he held them by the end of the session, and the cups had more than half of their water left in them, then Tom would get a reward.


The clips she showed us also emphasized how important it was that they would end each training session before Tom began to feel so stressed out that he would self-harm to tell everyone that he wanted out. But each clip showed Tom struggling to learn something while also valiantly fending off the urge to self-harm. In the beginning, he would try and self-harm with the cups in hand, but since he was holding the cups of water, he couldn’t form a fist. He tried hitting himself with his wrists or forearms, but he was also trying to delicately balance the water so he could get his reward. 

Later when he was learning to write, he would hold one cup in one hand, and the pencil in the other. I have to say, the people working at this center had the reflexes of a kung fu master. The second Tom’s pencil arm would twitch toward his head, the caretaker’s arm was already over Tom’s. Bruce Lee would have been impressed.

So what’s the point of Tom’s story? By giving Tom those glasses to hold and reinforcing him when he held onto them for the entire duration of the training session, my Professor was reinforcing an incompatible behavior with self-harm. Tom couldn’t hurt himself while also doing his best to hold onto the cups of water. Holding onto the cups also naturally prevents his hands from forming a fist, so Tom was less inclined to hurt himself with it. In essence, this is what all incompatible behavior must accomplish. 

Dog Example


With dogs, you’ll be using DRI the most whenever a dog tries to chew on something they aren’t supposed to.

Biscuit the Terrier has a bad habit of chewing up pillows and gnawing at different parts of tables. Through a DRI procedure, what you can do is redirect Biscuit toward a chew toy or something more appropriate to chew on. For example, if you see Biscuit chewing on the table, you could move her away and then put a chew toy into her mouth instead. Once she chews on the toy, then you can start petting and reinforcing her for doing that behavior. 

Chewing on the toy in this scenario is incompatible because Biscuit cannot chew on your furniture and chew on the toy at the same time. To make sure this is 100% incompatible, we also move Biscuit away from the furniture in question. This way Biscuit cannot be far away from the furniture and chew on the furniture at the same time. This also communicates to Biscuit in clear terms that what is getting her moved away is her proximity and behavior with the furniture.

Be aware, when you first start doing this, you have to teach your dog the difference between “no chewing on this object” and “if you chew on this object, I will move you and then give you a chew toy and a pet.” If your dog starts thinking the rule is the latter part, then he or she will keep chewing on the table no matter what, because chewing on the furniture will get your attention and reinforcement. 

In order to make sure you’re getting the message across, you have to keep an eye on your dog and be persistent. Every time they go near the table and open their mouths, you have to be ready to take them away and immediately redirect to a chew toy. Once they’ve started chewing on the toy, then, and only then, should you reinforce. The behavior we’re rewarding is chewing on the toy whenever the dog wants to chew on the furniture. 

Final Thoughts

There are a few big takeaways from these examples. First, remember that you need to identify the root cause of a behavior. What is your subject getting out of the problem behavior? 

Second, what is the incompatible behavior with the problem behavior, and how do I reinforce that?

If you’re using DRI, keep these questions in mind while you train or while you are thinking of a way to fix problem behaviors. 


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